ESPN and Win Probability: Breaking "New" Ground

This is the fourth installment of a series where I’m tracking the latest developments with ESPN and various forms of baseball win probability (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).

A few weeks ago, ESPN introduced a win probability graphic to their coverage of the College World Series.  They didn’t fully explain their methodology, beyond the fact that it takes into account the score, game situation, and lineup.  Except for lineup adjustments, none of these would be improvements over the existing tables used on FanGraphs to track Major League Baseball.

Where ESPN would be breaking new ground with win probability would be in its introduction to the mainstream baseball audience.  While nuts like myself are fully aware of win probability and have been for some time, most baseball fans have no clue what this statistic really means.  Without a proper explanation, ESPN basically set up everyone else to dismiss it as just another gimmick, like what they did to get people to watch a poker event that happened months ago.

Now, I’m coming to find out, ESPN thinks they’re breaking new ground with this cutting-edge win probability stuff.  Based on an internal memo that was forwarded on to Deadspin, we have learned the following about the mission of the “Data Group,” which is responsible for building ESPN’s stat databases:

We’re also looking to take statistical development in new directions — from pitch-type and pitch speed breakdowns to statistical win probabilities for various sports.

MLB.com does a pretty good job with the former: breaking down pitch types and speeds, and THT, Baseball Prospectus, and others have taken advantage of that to do some detailed breakdowns of individual pitchers’ styles.  The latter, as you know, is covered around here, and current knowledge was built by Player Win Averages and propelled by the research of Tom Tango and Dave Studenmund.

ESPN’s only new direction in win probability, unless they’re doing far more than making lineup adjustments, will be to include it in their game broadcasts – a big step for sure, but not a new direction in and of itself.  If they choose to continue rolling it out in their broadcasts, let’s hope they explain what they’re doing, lest they give the non-sabermetric crowd one more reason to hate nerds like me who decide entire games on their computers and suck the fun out of everything.  And then let’s hope they give credit where credit is due.

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2 thoughts on “ESPN and Win Probability: Breaking "New" Ground

  1. Well, they’re going in a new direction only in the sense that they’re introducing it to a crowd that’s not used to it (which may or may not be a good thing). The first ballpark scoreboard operator to put OBP and SLG up there for the current batter probably thought he was going in a new direction too.

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